When Tony DeMarco was a first-year assistant football coach at Chancellor High School in 1988, head coach Scott Miller asked him a question he perceived as loaded.
Miller asked DeMarco if he had any desire to become a head coach.
DeMarco was unsure how to answer.
He didn’t want Miller to believe he was a self-promoter. But he also didn’t want his superior to think he lacked ambition.
“He told me ‘If you want to be a head coach that means you’ll work hard,’” DeMarco recalled. “I thought that was kind of interesting. It stuck with me.”
DeMarco toiled for 22 years as an assistant coach in the Fredericksburg area before he was hired as the head coach at Riverbend in 2010—in his third time applying for the position.
He knows what it’s like to do the behind-the-scenes work that may go unnoticed to those who show up on Friday nights to cheer on their teams.
DeMarco and other head coaches throughout the area are certainly appreciative of their assistants. They said those men serve as brain-trusts of the operation, mentors to the players and servants who shy away from glory all in the name of building a successful program.
“If you’ve got a good staff of guys you like and guys you want to compete with, it is a lot of fun,” Mountain View head coach Lou Sorrentino said. “It’s fun to go to battle with them, win, lose or draw.”
A PROTECTIVE SHIELD
DeMarco served as an assistant at Chancellor for 16 years. He also spent four years as a Riverbend assistant and two at Fredericksburg Christian School. He served under five different head coaches.
He said when he was an assistant coach, he believed his primary job was to shield the head coach from mundane tasks that can mount through out the season.
DeMarco said he’s noticed his assistants have the same mindset.
“I see some of the things they try to deflect from me,” DeMarco said. “Some of those things never make it to me. I constantly see them taking care of issues. I see them out of the corner of my eye and I know they’re dealing with them. It makes my job a lot easier.”
That desire to free up the head coach has become increasingly important, said Sorrentino and Colonial Forge head coach Bill Brown.
Brown noted that there is more paperwork nowadays than in the past with an increased emphasis on safety. He said head coaches now have to teach concussion protocol and other safety issues.
Sorrentino mentioned that in Stafford County a new behavioral policy was put in place after a hazing incident at Brooke Point last fall. Head coaches sometimes have to deal with parental concerns, as well.
Eastern View assistant coach Ronald Watkins said he enjoys his role because he can focus on teaching football.
“When I go home at night, I sleep well,” Watkins said. “My phone isn’t ringing, and all the emails, I don’t have to reply to. I enjoy my role as a coordinator.”
QUALITY OR QUANTITY
Caroline head coach Antron Yates said his job is 80 percent administration and 20 percent coaching.
That’s why Yates said he’s thrilled to have added three assistant coaches this year with ties to the county who appear to be in it for the long haul.
Yates said former Cavalier standouts Keith Baylor, Jonathan Samuel and Patrick Stambaugh can help turn the program around after a winless 2014 campaign.
“That’s what makes a program, especially when you can get young guys that want to be here,” Yates said. “It’s an awesome situation.”
The Cavaliers usually have operated with just six assistant coaches. Group 5A and 6A programs, which typically have freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams often carry 12 assistants or more.
DeMarco said the Bears have 12 coaches and some turn down their stipends or split them to allow more on the staff.
Courtland coach J.C. Hall said when he played under hall of fame coach Ken Brown in the 1980s, Brown told him: “the fewer the better—and I’ve found that to be true.”
“I got a piece of advice from coach Brown a long time ago,” Hall said. “He said, ‘Make sure you get loyal guys.’ I’ve tried to do that, and that’s why they’ve been with me for so long. They’re just as passionate about the kids as I am. They’re the reason we’ve never had a losing season in the 12 years that I’ve been here. That speaks volumes about our assistant coaches.”
THE TIES THAT BIND
Chancellor has a youthful group of assistant coaches who are knowledgeable and energetic.
With head coach Bob Oliver suffering from health problems the past few years, the group has taken on more of a leadership role.
They take players on week-long recruiting tours. They keep the program up to date with the latest technology. Perhaps most importantly, they serve as intermediaries between Oliver and the players.
“It’s invaluable,” Oliver said. “Assistant coaches, the young guys, they’re the ones that keep the dinosaurs like myself abreast of the kids. I started in 1977 and it’s 2015. A player of 2015 is not the same as a player of 1977. The young coaches do a lot as far as that transition.”
Sorrentino said that’s an important role, as well. Wildcats defensive coordinator John Robinette said Sorrentino is approachable and open to meeting with his players. But with nearly 100 players combined in three programs (varsity, JV and freshman), Sorrentino said it’s close to impossible to develop relationships with them all.
He said during offseason workoutsm he attempts to do so but it helps to have assistants mentoring and making an impact on the players’ lives. He said nowadays it’s also imperative that assistant coaches have high character and don’t do anything to bring negative attention to the program.
“Between all of us, we’re dealing with somebody’s child every day,” Sorrentino said. “I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder thinking ‘Are they doing the right thing? Are these guys good for kids?’”
EFFECT ON BOTTOM LINE
Oliver said if you look around the area and notice the programs that have been continually successful, it can be traced back to their coaching staffs.
When James Monroe won the Group AA, Division 3 state championship in 2008 and made three more state title games appearances since, it had what head coach Rich Serbay said was a top-notch staff.
That unit took a hit this past offseason when veteran offensive coordinator Eddie Haynes resigned.
Massaponax head coach Eric Ludden has always praised his staff, as well. It helped the Panthers overcome the loss of more than 20 seniors off the 2013 team and still finish 13–1 a year ago.
“This is the best group I’ve ever had,” Ludden said. “A lot of these guys are going to be head coaches.”
Like Haynes at JM, Massaponax has had a former head coach on its staff in Drew Seaman, who directed Riverbend from its inception in 2004 until ’08. Seaman was a previous Massaponax assistant and he rejoined the Panthers’ staff in ’09.
“He came back with more ideas,” Ludden said. “And certain things we’ve put in.”
Ludden said his assistants steadily bring innovative solutions to meetings and the group has uncommon chemistry. He said no duty is beneath any of the coaches, and they cover for each other when one has a family obligation that may cause him to be late or absent.
“You know how it is on TV. They talk about the quarterback and the coach,” Ludden said. “But there’s just so much more to it than that.”
CHEMISTRY IS KEY
It’s similar at Mountain View. Robinette said Sorrentino welcomes input from his coaches and rarely overrules them.
Sorrentino said that’s because if a coach brings an idea to the table, he will typically work harder to see it succeed. He said mature discussions among “football junkies” is what keeps a program thriving.
“Sometimes guys are the Friday-night guys that want to do it for the glamour and to be out in front,” Sorrentino said. “But it’s a lot more fun doing it with guys that you throw around ideas with and at the end of the day, we’re not sure whose idea it was. It comes out our idea.”
Bill Brown said bonds like that produce positive end results for those that matter most: the players. He said they’re all still maturing and may have character flaws or academic issues. He said assistant coaches are motivated by the desire to see those young men succeed.
“We all love that part of it,” Brown said. “It sounds cliché, but it’s a fact. When you see the joy and elation in your kids’ faces because they had a great challenge and they had a great accomplishment that’s a great feeling and one I don’t think you can get enough of. It’s what keeps coaches coaching all the time. They don’t want to lose that.”